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DREDF Honors the Life & Legacy of Disability Rights Pioneer and Ally, Richard A. “Dick” Thornburgh

January 4, 2021
Source: Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF)

“Perhaps the most satisfying change the ADA has brought about is a change in attitude. As new generations of Americans have worked, lived and played side-by-side with persons with disabilities, the debilitating barriers of stereotypes and prejudices are disappearing. Participation in everyday American life has brought a sense of self-worth for persons with disabilities.”

— [Quote from] Richard A. “Dick” Thornburgh, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 2, 2015

Thornburgh, whose public career spanned more than twenty-five years – first as Governor of Pennsylvania, then as the Attorney General of the United States under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and later as Under-Secretary of the United Nations – passed away on December 31, 2020. He was an early ally in the fight for disability rights, access and inclusion.

For Thornburgh, the fight was both personal and political.

A car accident took the life of his first wife, Ginny Hooton Thornburgh, and severely injured one of their three sons, Peter, in 1960. In a 1979 New York Times interview, Thornburgh recalled: “I was left with three little children, including Peter, who suffered brain injury in the wreck. That’s a jolt. It made me think about what I wanted to do with my life, what I can do to contribute to the world.”

At the request of President George H.W. Bush, then Attorney General Thornburgh made what he considered perhaps the greatest of his many contributions – taking the lead role for the administration to ensure congressional passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. After the ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990, Mr. Thornburgh described the day as “one of emancipation, not just for the millions of Americans with disabilities who will directly benefit from this Act, but even more so for the rest of us now free to benefit from the contributions which those with disability can make to our economy, our communities and our own well-being.”

“The day was a high point of my tenure as attorney general,” Thornburgh emphasized in his 2003 autobiography, Where the Evidence Leads.

Born July 16, 1932, Thornburgh is survived by his second wife Ginny Judson Thornburgh, a former schoolteacher from New York, who holds degrees from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Ginny served as Director of the Interfaith Initiative of the American Association of People with Disabilities, and co-authored That All May Worship, an award-winning handbook for religious organizations to include people with disabilities in their congregations.

In addition to his wife, Ginny, Thornburgh is survived by four sons and their families: John and his wife, Sharon; David and his wife, Rebecca; Peter and William; six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

“When I approached Attorney General Thornburgh about filing an amicus brief in Lane v. Tennessee, a case involving the constitutionality of the ADA,” remembered DREDF’s Directing Attorney Emerita Arlene B. Mayerson, “Attorney General Thornburgh was not only eager to participate, but also as down to earth as one could be.”

“Attorney General Thornburgh was the linchpin that secured the draft of the ADA,” recalled DREDF cofounder, Patrisha Wright. “His life experience and legal and political skills led the way for the Bush Administration to endorse and support the law.”

Everyone at DREDF appreciates and honors the pioneering contributions to disability communities and longterm commitment Mr. Thornburgh made by helping secure, protect and sustain our civil rights. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, friends and loved ones.

[Note: Visit the link to this DREDF news post to watch a video clip of Mr. Thornburgh from The Making of the ADA - Memories From the 10th Anniversary of the signing of The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991. Web:]

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